In 1985, Darrick Wade was living in Lakeview Terrace on Cleveland’s near west side with his family when he first started noticing something was off with his son, Demetrius.
"When he was about two years old, I believe he had an episode of an attack of the lead, that toxin," Wade said. "Because he shook a chair real angrily, and I didn’t understand where that anger came from at such a young age."
When Demetrius got tested at age nine, he had extremely high blood lead levels. Wade says a large number of the other children living in the Cuyahoga Metropolitan Housing Authority housing complex also tested positive for lead.
As Demetrius got older, his health problems worsened.
"At the age of 12, he was diagnosed as a juvenile diabetic," Wade said. "And then at the age of 14, he started having problems with his kidneys and his color changed. We discovered that he had problems with his liver at 16. By 19 years old, they said he had an enlarged heart. So he just battled all through his teens, the illnesses, he was in and out of the hospital."
Doctors couldn’t figure out what was wrong with him, and didn’t have answers as to whether it had to do with his lead exposure.
"September 15, 2007 he called me and said, 'Dad, I’m sick,'" Wade said. "[I said], 'Okay, we’ll get you to the hospital.' He was up on the gurney and he was talking just fine. I said well, another routine hospital stay, we gotta go there a couple days, he’ll be out by Thursday, Friday. He went in and it was the last time I saw him alive."
Since his son’s death, Wade has advocated for children who have been exposed to lead — and often never tested — and are now facing the health consequences as they grow older.
"It just makes me think about all of the children who are sick and this lead, this toxic lead, disguising itself as diabetes, as a liver condition, as a kidney condition, as an enlarged heart," Wade said. "And then I think about the children who are those who have fell through the cracks."
More and more research is showing that long-term lead exposure can have serious health effects on children as they grow into adults.
Being exposed to even low levels of lead as a child or throughout adulthood increases the risk of not only cognitive issues, but also heart and kidney disease and overall mortality, says lead researcher Bruce Lanphear.
"Hypertension, cardiovascular disease, diminished IQ that goes into adulthood, criminal behaviors," Lanphear said. "If you have higher blood lead levels or higher bone lead levels as an adult, you have accelerated cognitive decline. There’s been all this evidence about lead for the past 20 or 30 years, and yet somehow, it’s really not on anyone’s list of risk factors."
Emily Muttillo at the Center for Community Solutions says that lead exposure among adults is a serious public health issue that isn’t talked about enough.
"In a city like Cleveland, where the majority of homes are built before 1978 we can assume all of those homes have had lead paint there at some point," Muttillo said. "And so I think it has the potential to impact every person who lives in those homes. And if we have a whole community of people who are having increased rates of cardiovascular disease, kidney disease, and cognitive decline, that’s going to have an impact on our health systems here in the city."
Darrick Wade, who is 61, thinks he, too, was lead poisoned as a child. He says as a kid, he dealt with aggression issues and struggled in school, and today still battles with focus.
"Is there a variable there that I could’ve been crawling on the floor and got a hold of some lead dust or lead?" Wade said. "To me it seems if I was affected, I was affected in the ability to learn, because I’ve always been a slow learner."
He has no way of knowing for sure — people in his generation were never tested. His hope is that families like his own, who continue to face the health effects of lead exposure, will have more support as they move into adulthood.